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OCS Leadership

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young
Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics and USDA's Chief Scientist

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young serves as the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), and as USDA’s Chief Scientist. The REE mission area is comprised of more than 8,500 employees with a $4 billion budget across its five component organizations including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). Together these organizations advance agricultural research, innovation, data, and Extension across a full range of agricultural issues including climate-smart agriculture, nutrition security, equity, and strengthening food supply chains. As Chief Scientist, Dr. Jacobs-Young advises the Secretary of Agriculture and other senior officials on scientific matters and chairs the USDA Science Council, which convenes all parts of USDA’s scientific enterprise.

Prior to being appointed by President Biden to serve as the REE Under Secretary, Dr. Jacobs-Young was Administrator for ARS from 2014 to 2022. Prior to that role, she served as ARS Associate Administrator for National Programs, leading the research objectives of the entire Agency. She also led the Office of International Research Programs, which is responsible for ARS' liaison with its international partners. From 2009 to 2012, Dr. Jacobs-Young served as the inaugural OCS Director, where she was responsible for facilitating the coordination of scientific leadership across the Department to ensure that research supported by, and scientific advice provided to, the Department and external stakeholders were held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity. She has also served as the Acting Director for NIFA and as a senior policy analyst for agriculture in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Dr. Jacobs-Young is a native of Georgia. She holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Wood and Paper Science and a B.S. degree in Pulp and Paper Science and Technology from North Carolina State University. She is a graduate of American University's Key Executive Leadership in Public Policy Implementation Program, and a proud fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Public Administration.

Dr. Deirdra Chester
Director, Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS)

Dr. Deirdra Chester serves as the Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). In this role, she leads OCS in delivering science and research that undergirds the policies and practices of USDA and its customers and stakeholders. Additionally, she steers collaboration activities for USDA science programs that support scientific excellence, innovation, and capacity to achieve the Department’s mission. Prior to this role, Dr. Chester was with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) were she served as the Division Director for the Division of Nutrition. In this role, she provided leadership and oversight for the Division’s research, education, and Extension activities across the nation through competitive grant programs.

Previously, Dr. Chester was the agency Science Advisor for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Before APHIS, she served as the National Program Leader for NIFA’s Applied Nutrition Research in the Division of Nutrition. Prior to joining NIFA, Dr. Chester was a scientist at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Additionally, Dr. Chester is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist. She has spoken both nationally and internationally on nutrition topics and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Obesity and Chronic Disease.

Dr. Chester is an American University Key Executive Leadership program graduate and is SES certified through the USDA Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. Dr. Chester holds a Ph.D. in Nutrition from Florida International University, where she was awarded the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship and was in the inaugural class of the Gates Millennial Scholars. She also holds a master’s degree in food and nutrition science and a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Florida State University.

Dr. Chester is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. The American Public Health Association Food and Nutrition Section awarded her the Mary C. Egan Award and she was recognized by Florida State University’s College of Human Science with the Circle of Excellence Alumni Award.

Dr. Richard Derksen
OCS, Deputy Director

Dr. Richard (Rich) Derksen serves as the Deputy Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). In this role, he provides a wide range of administrative and budget leadership for the Office and supervises/mentors fellows. Dr. Derksen supports the Chief Scientist in leading collaboration activities for science programs that support scientific excellence, innovation, and capacity to achieve USDA’s mission. He provides direction and leadership on a wide range of issues affecting programs in agricultural research, education, and economics.

Dr. Derksen has over 25 years of engineering research experience. He is an internationally recognized expert in crop production and protection engineering. Dr. Derksen began his career at USDA in 1996 when he joined the Agricultural Research Service as a research scientist. He has authored over 200 publications, including 78 peer-reviewed journal manuscripts, and given numerous invited presentations at national and international scientific meetings. Dr. Derksen received his Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Illinois. He received his Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering from Purdue University. He previously held a faculty research and extension appointment at Cornell University. Dr. Derksen is originally from Indiana and has engaged in his local communities as a 4-H advisor, neighborhood association leader, and substitute teacher.

Nick Pallotta
OCS, Chief of Staff

Nick Pallotta serves as the Acting Chief of Staff for the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). In this role Nick will ensure proper and timely attention is devoted to high level, high priority, urgent, and/or controversial international issues, problems, or situations which arise while responding to policy and action initiatives. He will support in review and clearance of REE briefing memos and other OCS administrative priorities.

Nick Pallotta serves as the Head of Project Management for USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) where he is maturing the agencies project management capabilities and its end-to-end digital modernization. Nick founded and led both the NASS Machine Learning Group and the USDA’s Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence. Nick was recently recognized with the 2023 Data Innovator of the Year Datum Award by the Data Foundation for his innovative usage of AI to meet an Evidence Act requirement to discover and display public usages of agency datasets on our website. Nick developed the initial draft of the agency’s 2020-2025 strategic plan and used the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey to benchmark the contents of plan with customer satisfaction.

Nick attended SUNY Brockport where he obtained a degree in Business Management with a focus on statistics and economics. He began his career with USDA in 2006 by relocating with his wife to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Topeka, Kansas. He transferred to DC in 2009 to lead national level programs for agricultural chemical usage and farm input prices paid. Nick excelled at managing these programs and moved into the challenging field of project management in 2013. In the years to follow, he received his Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI), a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification from the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and is a level two Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR).